Choosing Wisely

Blog image, 5/16/18

Blog image, 5/16/18

Exercising clear judgment, taking into account what is helpful versus harmful…
can help us avoid future suffering.

– Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras

When I opened the email and read its first few paragraphs, I was hooked – heart and mind. The email described a program called the Kripalu School of Mindful Outdoor Leadership.

This training – which combines forest bathing, yoga, Ayurveda, outdoor skills, and an overview of relevant research on nature’s health benefits…”

And it goes on to explain that the program is designed for those who are called to share nature’s gifts by integrating their love of the outdoors with mindfulness.

How perfect this would be for me, I thought. Isn’t this what I do in my yoga classes and meditations – use images from nature to help students connect to qualities that support them, or give them a sense of calm, or energy, or joy, or peace? The coolness of the full moon to calm them, or the movement of a stream to bring energy, or the light of the sun to encourage clarity, or the mountain for stability? Just the idea of sharing “nature’s gifts” excites me and brings joy.

I tried to convince my dear friend that the program would be perfect for us. We could become nature and mindfulness guides. I tried to convince my husband that he and I could do this program together, sharing the adventure of nine days of training in the Berkshires in late October, early November. After all, we have loved adventures in the past, like the month we spent in India studying at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, and our time in Japan on a yoga retreat, as well as driving Route 50 wherever it went across the U.S.

He was cautiously interested. More cautious as he thought about spending 10 hours a day for nine days outside, which the program required. He was even more cautious as he looked up the temperature highs of 52 and lows of 32 at the time of the year the program is offered.

After my conversation with my husband, I sat quietly in contemplation. My intent was not to reflect on the program or anything in particular, but to be open to the wisdom of a source beyond myself. This kind of self-reflection or svadhyaya, one of the three components of kriya yoga, has kept me more than once from going down a road that wasn’t right for me.

So, as I sat, I came to realize that my enthusiasm for this program was not really training to be a nature guide. What I wanted was to spend time walking in a forest or on a hiking trail. To have more time to be outside. I wanted the peace I feel in nature.

I also reflected upon who I am and where I am in my life. As a yoga teacher and vedic chanter committed to sharing the teachings so generously given to me, why would I disrespect this wisdom, my years of study and experience to take up a different path. As a woman of sixty-nine, with a husband, children, grandchildren, relatives and friends I love, do I really want to commit my energy to this program? Would it bring me joy?

My mind can trick me into responding as if I am thirty-nine instead of my real age. In yoga, this is called asmita. Asmita is a misidentification with who we really are and is one of what Patangali, in the Yoga Sutra, calls the klesas. We are all subject to the klesas, and things generally do not go well for us when they are dictating our actions.

Rather than allowing this misidentification to lead me astray, I found checking in with my friend and my husband helped me to recognize that more reflection might be needed before signing up for this training. My reflection allowed me to have the discernment to see more clearly and choose more wisely what I was going to do. Lastly, after sharing my initial writing on this experience with my teacher, I realized how yoga’s teachings have guided this process of discernment and reassured me that what I am doing, and who I am, is truly enough.

Finding a Path through Grief

Yoga and Grief book cover

I wanted to share a new yoga resource with you. Gloria Drayer, a wonderful yoga teacher and friend, has co-written a book entitled, Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing. This book is an insightful guide, explaining different yoga techniques and how they can support you as you experience and move through loss.

One of the first things I noticed about the book was the gentle, comforting language used. Nowhere do we hear what we must do to assuage our grief. Everywhere we are encouraged to use what works for us, to respect our own needs, to allow ourselves what time we need to heal, despite outside pressure to move on.

Most likely, the writers’ own experience and wisdom has guided their supportive tone. Both Gloria and Kathleen came to write this book out of their own experiences of loss: Gloria as she cared for her mother in her last year of life and Kathleen as she faced a major health crisis in her own life. Both talk about using the techniques of yoga described in this book to help them through their own journeys.

The writers explain that the suffering of loss unbalances our entire system. By using techniques of yoga we can rebalance the energy of our bodies and minds to find, over time, a sense of calm and peace.

This book is remarkable in its breadth, clarity, and accessibility. Strategies offered include breathing techniques, gentle yoga postures, meditation, chant, and the use of ritual. For each of these techniques, several options are offered for their use. For example, in the chapter on yoga postures, there is a practice that can be done in a chair, another done standing, another on the floor, a longer practice, as well as suggestions for rest, so that anyone can find something appropriate.

In each chapter, the writers explain the benefits of each technique and offer easy to follow instructions to perform it. To help follow instructions for yoga postures and breathing practices, clear black and white photos supplement the instructions, which are written accurately and simply. To support learning of the chant and meditation, Gloria has recordings of the chants and guided meditations given in the book on her two websites.

I highly recommend Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing, whether you are dealing with grief right now or not. We all experience losses in our lives, be it the loss of a loved one, the death of a pet, the loss of health, the loss of a relationship, or a job or home, and most of us help others close to us with their losses. To understand the techniques of yoga and how they can support us can be invaluable when we need help. Gloria and Kathleen have created a remarkable resource. It is a gift to those needing a path through grief.

Visit or to learn how to order the printed book or e-book edition of Yoga and Grief, a compassionate journey toward healing.

Frequently Asked Questions:
What Does “om” Mean?

What is "Om" blog image

This question comes up repeatedly in classes, especially when “om” is part of a mantra being chanted. Many people associate “om” with Hinduism, which can be disturbing to non-Hindus who are asked to chant “om” in a yoga class.

But there is not one simple translation for “om” or any of the other mantras in the Sanskrit language. Sanskrit, itself, has deeply ancient origins and may be the oldest language in the world. Unlike English, in which the communication of meaning is paramount, Sanskrit gives sound the highest priority. Sound carries the meaning, and meaning is in the sound. Each letter of the Sanskrit alphabet has its own energetic quality.

But what exactly is a “mantra”, you might ask. David Frawley explains in Mantra Yoga and Primal Sound, “Mantra in Sanskrit means tool ‘tra’ of the mind ‘manas.’ It is the primary tool of Yoga for calming the mind…”

Mantra has the deeper meaning of “that which protects or supports.” Often a teacher gives a student a “mantra” to help support him or her. The mantra unfolds itself to the student as it touches all parts of his or her system.

“Om” has a place in Indian mythology. As the story goes, the universe resounded with the sound and vibration of “om” at the moment of creation. Often people recognize a power in the vibrational quality of the sound as they chant it. Many experience a quieting of the mind and a calming energy when chanting “om.”

The mantra “om” comes from the sounds of “a+u+m+silence.” When chanted, the “au” or “o” has three counts, the “m” has one-half count, and then momentary silence. “Om” represents everything in creation; the silence after “om” represents that which is beyond words. Other meanings are attributed to the mantra as well. For example, “a” can represent the teacher; “u” the student; “m” their relationship. The letter “a” can stand for creation; “u” for that which sustains; “m” for dissolution. The mantra can represent the states of consciousness: “a” representing waking; “u” representing dreaming; “m,” deep sleep.

“Om” also represents a higher force. It can be the highest within you, a heart quality, love. It is a force above or beyond the mind. And, yes, when Hindus chant “Om,” it represents God.

“Om” has a mystery to it, even when we hear it without chanting ourselves. This mystery comes from the power of the vibration and sound, which is able to touch us deeply. The effect can be profound and even healing. But, let me be clear: there is no requirement in yoga to chant “om” or anything else. It is another modality to explore and to see from that exploration what might be discovered.

A Lesson on Mistakes

Yoga class image

The lesson came in the first class of the first day of my Vedic Chant Training in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Our teacher was reviewing chants we had studied over the past two years. We were directed to chant them without looking at our chant papers – in other words, we had to chant from memory.

Of course, mistakes were made. And, I realized that every time I heard myself make a mistake, I was thrown off and found it difficult to join back in the chant.

As we finished each chant, our teacher Sonia Nelson asked us what we noticed. I raised my hand and explained that every mistake I made so threw me off I found it difficult to regain my place in the chant.

She related her own experience with mistakes as she was learning. She explained that she had been clear about wanting to learn to chant well. In the process of studying, she came to realize that mistakes were her teachers. The mistakes she made chanting identified for her what she needed to work on and refine to reach her objective.

Her advice to me was priceless. She told me I needed to change my negative associations with mistakes. I needed to replace my old samskaras or habitual way of thinking about mistakes with new, positive samskaras.

When the awareness of a mistake comes up in chanting, she suggested pressing a finger and imagining sending the “mistake,” like a text, to a text box. Later I could return to the text box and work on refining that problem area I had identified. For me, this sounded like a plausible and positive way to deal with mistakes, perhaps even those I might make in other areas of my life.

Rather than getting bogged down with self-criticism when I make a mistake, I can identify it, put it away for the moment so I focus on what is going on in my life at that moment. In a way this becomes an act of acceptance. I made a mistake, but I can still address what needs my attention in the moment, and come back to deal with it thoughtfully and take whatever action is needed.

We are human. We all make mistakes. Looking at our mistakes as opportunities to learn and refine our actions can be so much more helpful and supportive in our lives than self-criticism and negativity.

What do you think? Could this lesson be of help to you?

Yoga is the goal; Yoga is the path…

Yoga is the goal, Yoga is the pathIf you had asked me what yoga was after my first year of taking weekly classes, most likely I would have said it was doing special poses so you felt good, relaxed and stronger, and were healthier. Later, after I had started reading a little about yoga, I might have added something like, “finding your true self” (whatever that was).

Even though my understanding was very limited at that time, I was getting the idea of yoga – yoga meant we were achieving something and yoga was how we got there.

In the beginning of the most important text on yoga, The Yoga Sutra, we learn that the state of yoga is what is to be achieved. While the translations vary slightly, they are all about the quieting of the movements (vrittis) of the mind (chitta) so we can see ourselves and all our relationships, choices, and actions with absolute clarity. But this is not easy.

The mind is in motion most of the time, moving from thought to thought. This is true for all of us. Our attention may be totally focused on our yoga practice or a project or an instrument we are playing. Then we smell coffee or bread baking, the dog starts barking, a childhood memory pops up, or an unpleasant conversation is remembered, and our mind deserts our yoga practice, the project, or the music. It almost seems as if the mind’s job is rumination as it falls into it so naturally, making us feel anxious and a bit crazed when thoughts start racing like squirrels in the attic. Then the state of yoga is far off in the distance.

Yet, Patanjali, compiler of the Yoga Sutra does not leave us with this difficult goal of yoga, an unruly mind, and no directions. He gives us a path. And the path is the activity of yoga.

In the first sutra of the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers the path of kriya yoga. The three components of kriya yoga help us to deal with mental and emotional afflictions keeping us stuck and suffering, as well as helping us to arrive at the state of yoga.

  • The practice of postures and breathwork is often connected with the first component – tapas, or fire, heat, the goal of which is purification of our system to create positive change.
  • The second component is svadhyaya or self-observation. We practice svadhyaya as we observe ourselves in postures, pranayama, meditation, in relationships. We study major texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or other important works, using them as mirrors to gain clarity about who we are.
  • The third component of kriya yoga is isvara pranidhana, recognizing a power greater than ourselves to which we surrender the fruits of our actions.

Each of the practices comprising kriya yoga apply to the eight limbs of yoga, which Patanjali describes later in this chapter: ethical principles (yamas), attitudes toward ourselves (niyamas), postures (asana), breathing practices (pranayama), tuning out sensory input (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), total and complete attention without sense of ego. This last is called samadhi, which is the state of yoga.

By applying tapas, svadhyaya, isvara pranidhana as we practice the tools given us in the eight limbs, we have a path. It is certainly not an easy or smooth path. But, it is a path, nevertheless, that with patient and consistent practice over time can quiet the movements of the mind so our vision becomes clear.


Salad Meditation

SaladI love designing salads. As paints are for an artist, the colors of lettuces and greens, carrots and beets, scallions and persimmons, olives and peppers, corn and peas, tomatoes and cucumbers, apples and oranges, strawberries, nuts, dates, raisins, and cranberries are my palette. I think about how their tastes and textures, as well as colors, create a beautiful, delicious, and healthful balance. But the salad is never complete until I have decided upon the perfect combination of vinegars and olive oils, enhanced with garlic, herbs, salt and pepper, to impart a glow to the greens.

As a painting may fall short of the painter’s intentions, my salads do not always succeed in achieving the qualities I hoped for. But the designing of a salad is still a creative act for me. I lose myself in the possibilities of combinations and how each vegetable or fruit might enhance the flavor or beauty of the others and complement the main course. My mind is so engaged in the creation of my salads, I am not aware of the passing of time, as my husband has reminded me as sits at the table waiting for me to finish.

I came across a wonderful quote in a daily meditation book. “Creative activity immerses us fully in the here and now,” the writer explains, “and at the same time it frees us. We become one with the activity and are nourished by it…We learn who we are in the very process of not thinking about who we are.” (Italics are mine.)

I was struck by how this description of creative activity also describes meditation. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutra, explains the levels of connection between ourselves and the object of our focus, culminating in deep contemplation or samadhi. First, the senses leave their usual focus on the activities around us; this state is called pratyahara. By eliminating distractions, we can enter a state of concentration, known as dharana, as we focus on an object. As concentration becomes steady and prolonged, a deeper state or meditation, known as dhyana, may evolve in which an interplay exists between what we are focusing on and ourselves.

Returning to my example, the salad is the object. My pratyahara is the honing in on making the salad. My senses are engulfed completely by the colors, textures, smells, and tastes of my ingredients, which elicits a state of concentration or dharana. Dhyana is not only linked with what I have created physically and aesthetically, but also with the nourishment, healing and quality of health that is derived by eating it. It is almost as if the salad communicates with me, making the link more intense.

The deepest level of focus is contemplation, samadhi, in which we lose all sense of ourselves so only that object of our focus remains in our mind.

Frequently I have found many people thinking that meditation requires being seated on the floor in a lotus posture, eyes closed, sitting perfectly still and emptying the mind. Yet, you can see that while meditation requires clearing the mind of distractions, what it really requires is coming to such focus that we have a deep connection, a link, almost an integration with whatever is our chosen point of focus.


Surviving the Klesas

Yoga class imageMy last five blogs focused on the klesas or afflictions. Knowing what they are, being able to recognize them in our lives, and having tools to deal with them are key to a sense of peace in our lives. My certainty about this comes not just from the teachings I have received, but also from my own experience.

Recently, for example, two of the klesas, raga (attachment) and abhinivesa (fear), have created unhappiness in my own life. When I looked in the mirror, I expected to see myself as I looked 10 or even 20 years ago and felt a sense of disquietude as I tried making my outsides match my mental image of myself. Along with the attachment to a past reality, I experienced fear about the changes occurring as I aged. I kept having the feeling something was wrong. And, it was. What was wrong was the avidya (misapprehension) I was having about where I was in my life.

Yoga teaches that within each one of us there is something that does not change and has the ability to see clearly. This is called purusa or the seer. When our mind is clouded with erroneous thoughts and attitudes, that is, with avidya such as my misunderstanding of my stage of life, purusa cannot shine forth. We have no clarity, and so are prone to act in ways bringing about unhappiness or suffering.

The state of yoga is about coming to clarity so purusa shines forth and there is no avidya, asmita, raga, dvesa, or abhinivesa. Our practice of yoga helps us to develop awareness. With awareness we can recognize when the klesas are active. Then we can be extra vigilant and take action so they do not loom large, causing distress. The possibility of one of the klesas emerging is always within us. Our job is to be able to recognize them when they are acorns, so they don’t grow to be oaks.

In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar maintains “the recognition and conquest of avidya and its effects is the only ladder by which we can climb upward.” He explains that we climb this ladder using the tools of kriya yoga – the yoga of action. Patanjali describes three aspects of kriya yoga in Yoga Sutra II.1.

The first is tapas, which comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “to heat” or “to cleanse.” We create this cleansing through the discipline of our yoga practice.

The second aspect of kriya yoga is svadhyaya or self-observation, self-study. Our work in a yoga practice can help us develop this skill as we constantly ask ourselves how our postures, our breath work, our chanting, visualization, and meditation are affecting us. We also can study important texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or Koran, that can offer us a mirror for ourselves. Through self-observation we come to know ourselves and see ourselves in our relationships.

Isvara pranidhana, the last aspect of kriya yoga – the yoga of action – focuses on the quality of our actions. We can never know for certain the outcome of any action we take. By focusing on the action itself, rather than the outcome, we have a better chance of being clear about what we are doing. Once we complete the action, then we must let go and observe the results.

In the case of my avidya regarding stage of life, I was fortunate that my yoga teacher helped me to see where I was stuck and offered a practice to help me move toward acceptance and a positive vision of what lay ahead.

The teachings in the Yoga Sutra on the klesas help us to understand and recognize the causes of much of our suffering. Our work with kriya yoga develops awareness so we can see the avidya causing our distress. Then, yoga offers many strategies so we may move away from the unhappiness avidya creates toward a clearer, more positive vision of life.